The call was like many others, one of hundreds I answer as a volunteer for a local nonprofit that helps homeless LGBT youth. People, ranging in age from 12 to 50, call a local number to get help and support with being homeless. I am one of a team of people on the other end of the phone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, waiting and hoping that we can make it easier for someone to find safety and shelter.
Two twelve year old boys are calling from a restaurant phone because they didn’t have a one. They had spent the night in Piedmont Park, sleeping under some trees.
It was one of the first calls that a new volunteer took. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she texted the rest of the group asking for support. Anxiety and compassion rose up within her. She stayed on the phone, talking, afraid to lose them.
In Georgia, for any youth under 18, the only option for assistance is the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS, who runs foster care). There is a law that requires anyone housing a youth under 18 for 72 hours to report it to DFACS. It becomes very complicated to help underage youth without serious legal complications.
Another volunteer on the team calls DFACS to get them engaged. “What is the father’s name?” “What’s the father’s social security number?” Questions that we can’t answer.
The boys have run away from their father in Florida, who is an alcoholic. They are terrified that we are going to call the police. They ask again and again if we are going to get the police involved. They fear having to go back to Florida and dealing with the home they left.
DFACS continues to ask escalating esoteric questions and make the boys increasingly nervous. We fear that it may take too much time to get anything done. We know only one way to get DFACS to move: to call the police. The police are able to force DFACS to act.
The boys finally agree to meet us so we can help. They pick a spot near the park where there is a bus stop. I volunteer to meet them since I live close. The volunteer team working with the staff of our agency realize that taking the boys to the police may be the only way to get them to shelter and safety…despite the fact that we have promised not to do that.
On the way to the bus stop, I try and imagine what it might be like to leave the home I know, hitchhike to another city and sleep in a park. Then I try to imagine doing it at 12 years old. How the desire to leave finally overrode the fear and uncertainty of relative safety. Sitting in a stranger’s car, hoping that the driver wouldn’t hurt me.
I get to the bus stop and realize why it was a poor choice. The bus stop is right near a stop light and a cop is standing there directing traffic. I sit down to wait.
The group of volunteers continue to text each other, we continue to struggle to get help from DFACS. A couple of volunteers have gotten in their cars and are driving around looking for the boys. Since they don’t have a phone, we can’t contact them again. We can only hope that they show up.
I watch at the bus stop. I walk to the next bus stop in each direction to make sure I have the right place. Every child I see, hope rises in my heart. I pray that they don’t see the cop directing traffic. I pray that they continue to be brave just a little longer.
As time goes on, my hope drains away, an hourglass with an expiration date and time. I send all the mental energy I can out to the Universe.
The boys never show up.